The False Dichotomy of Climate Change Planning and Affordability for Utilities

Posted on November 12, 2020

Jesssica smiling with her family outdoors

This article was written by Jessica Dorsey, Water Resource Senior Program Manager at the City of Hillsboro. Jessica wrote this article as part of the Water Resources Cohort. Read all the articles from the cohort here. Connect with Jessica on email.

Although providing safe, reliable water to our communities is always the highest priority the truth is that drinking water utilities have many competing goals. The themes of the 2020 ELGL Water Resources cohort centered on the challenges of equity, affordability, climate change, and the impacts of the pandemic on water utilities. 

Those challenges are certainly imperative issues facing the drinking water industry. Each is vying for a utility’s limited resources. At the start of the cohort in early August, the impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on communities, and the utilities that serve them, were top of mind. As the session ends in mid-September, the west coast is blanketed in wildfires and my state of Oregon is experiencing the most severe fire season in a century. I’ve been secluded in my home for days, not because of the pandemic, but because the region is blanketed in smoke and under a very hazardous air quality advisory. 

A situation like this, much like any natural disaster that occurs in a region, tends to incite focus on a particular indicator of climate change: flooding, wildfires, drought. But in the day-to-day operations of a utility climate change planning is not always a topic on the agenda. Planning for climate resiliency is frequently seen as a luxury over other imperatives that are more urgently felt by the public or a source of political pressure on elected officials, such as affordability. How do we make progress when trying to address so many concerns, when we can’t “focus” on one? It’s daunting.

For many utilities that are already struggling to keep their rates affordable, investing in climate resiliency projects may seem like a low priority or better suited for “when we have time and money”. Utilities may struggle to prioritize climate change resilience in their mission to provide essential services to the public. It can seem political, ancillary, or costly. But we don’t have to see it that way. Applying a climate change resiliency lens to all aspects of the utility’s operations and planning can actually move us forward in efforts to address affordability and equity, and even help better prepare us for pandemics. Source water protection has been long recognized as critical to producing safe drinking water but is it seen as an investment to ensure that delivery of quality water to our customer’s taps will remain affordable? Climate change will certainly amplify the impacts on communities that are already a concern for issues of equity and affordability. We know that, nationally, climate change will disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color but we don’t often hear equity or affordability as reasons utilities should invest in climate resiliency applications. Drinking water utilities must shift to the perspective that planning and acting on climate change also supports their goals in stability, affordability, and equity for the future.

It may be more palatable to say that a drinking water provider is designing a new reservoir or pump station to require less maintenance or withstand severe weather events than it is to say that a water utility has integrated climate resiliency into its decision-making practices. This isn’t just a matter of clever public communication, although quality communication strategies are extremely important. Focus and support for the technical work are needed too. Methods exist to apply climate considerations to infrastructure and capital projects, such as EPA’s CREAT assessment tool. But utilities must also develop a culture that embeds climate change resiliency in all levels of management and operations and do so in a way that fosters creative ideas and bold solutions as a means to better address the issues of affordability and equity for future customers.

The future of drinking water utilities will be shaped by climate change. Will we have control of that relationship is the question. When so many important issues are in the news and at the forefront, it can seem like utilities need to make choices on what to focus on and devote resources to. The water industry of the future must be a proactive and inventive one, speaking out on the importance of our water resources and their quality and conveying more and better information to our pubic. Climate resiliency must be a part of that conversation too.

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